They bonded over football. Now five friends are going to the Kentucky Derby as owners
As the private planes of horse owners started to stack up at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport in advance of the Kentucky Derby, five members of the Hot Rod Charlie ownership group took a Sunday morning Southwest Airlines flight from Raleigh, N.C., connected through Atlanta, before landing some four miles from Churchill Downs.
Only two of them paid the extra $20 for early boarding.
Meet the racing syndicate made up of five former Brown University football players calling themselves Boat Racing, named for a college beer drinking game. They own 25% of Hot Rod Charlie, second-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and winner of the Louisiana Derby.
Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins, Patrick O’Neill and Alex Quoyeser converged on the Ivy League school in Providence R.I. to get a good education and also play some football. What struck up was a friendship that has landed the quintet with jobs in California.
“We spent so much time together in college,” said Higgins, the only native Californian who played at Santa Margarita High. “Football was a huge time commitment, almost like a full-time job. We joined the same fraternity, had similar classes, studied together and lived together. While so many of our classmates ended up in Boston or New York, we all ended up in California after graduating.”
And they are remarkably successful considering they are all around 28 years old.
Higgins is a vice-president at PNC Business Credit in San Francisco and Armagost is an investment professional at Accel-KKR also in San Francisco. Giovacchini is co-founder of Tango, a website that builds tutorials, and Quoyeser is an operations manager for Lyft. Both are in Los Angeles. And O’Neill is vice-president of sales and strategic partnerships at Founder Sports Group in San Diego.
As for the horse racing connection, O’Neill is the familiar name, being the nephew of two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Doug O’Neill.
The group was looking for some bucket list things to do together, just to give them an excuse to see each other in interesting places. They have been to Machu Picchu in Peru and run with the bulls in Pamplona. They want to visit all seven continents.
But horse racing?
It started a couple of years ago when Higgins, Giovacchini and O’Neill were getting the full backstretch treatment at Del Mar during closing weekend.
“We were talking about things to do and horse racing came up,” Higgins said. “We knew Pat had this inside track, so why not use this platform to bring us closer and have some fun experiences? It was something we could rally around and meet up in different locations.”
After a few drinks, it looked like a go, except for one holdout.
“I was very much against it,” O’Neill said. “I know what the experience can be like. I’ve seen a few houses be lost [through gambling]. It was tough for me to say let’s do it. And it’s likely we weren’t going to make any money. But after a lot of deliberation, we decided to do it, but do it the right way. We made an operating agreement and treated it like a business.”
So, Boat Racing was formed and Dennis O’Neill, Patrick’s uncle and Doug’s brother, was brought in to find them a horse. Dennis O’Neill is considered one of the best, having found both of his brother’s Kentucky Derby winners, I’ll Have Another and Nyquist.
Dennis O’Neill got them minor partnership shares in Impossible Task and Tell Me I’m Pretty, in the spring of 2019. Both were $90,000 purchases.
“Those were our first two horses,” Higgins said. “Impossible Task was the first to run. We bought for $90,000 and got claimed for $100,000. It was awesome. A good outcome. It was super fun. Tell Me I’m Pretty was not a success story at all. She ended up at Fonner Park.
“That left us with a decision. Do we want to fire one more bullet or do we want to redirect funds to something else? That’s when Hot Rod Charlie came about. We never looked back.”
Hot Rod Charlie, known to the group as Chuck, was a $110,000 purchase, meaning about $5,500 for each of the guys. Also in the ownership group are Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing, who is the majority partner with 50%, and Bill Strauss of San Diego, who owns the other 25%.
It took Chuck four tries to break his maiden and then, in what seemed like a longshot move, entered him into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland. He went to post at 94-1 odds.
“A lot of it was trust in Dennis and Doug,” Higgins said. “Chuck was working incredibly, leading up to his maiden win. … Did we think we’d be 94-1? Absolutely not. We thought we were trending in the right direction. It was shot we thought we had to take.”
Hot Rod Charlie took the lead with about a furlong to go but was run down by Essential Quality, who is the presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite.
“We all lost our minds,” Higgins said. “When he finished second, we were all on Cloud Nine.”
No one in the group had any money on the horse to finish second.
The colt took some time off and finished a close third in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. It was a pattern that Doug O’Neill used with Nyquist, who ran only once between the Juvenile and final prep before the Derby.
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“We thought we needed to move him out of California because Life Is Good was still in the picture then,” Higgins said. “We thought competition in California was tough.”
The decision to run in Louisiana proved to be correct as he went to the lead and gamely held on down the stretch.
“I still to this day have to pinch myself,” Higgins said. “It was probably two-three weeks after the Louisiana Derby before it set in. I still get chills talking about it.”
While this is a completely new experience for the guys of Boat Racing, it’s familiar to co-owner Strauss.
“I told those guys at dinner Saturday night [after the Louisiana Derby], ‘You guys are really hosed now. You think you buy a horse and they’re all like this,’” Strauss said. “’You might never be here again. So, enjoy every moment. Don’t take anything for granted. You’re breathing very rare air.”’
The group was in Raleigh this past weekend for a bachelor party. They are anticipating as many as 40 former Brown football players to travel to Louisville as part of a total entourage of about 150 people that includes family and extended family.
There is no Brown Hotel or Galt House for the guys and their three significant others. Instead, they’ve rented an Airbnb nearby. It will be a first for everyone but Patrick O’Neill, who has been to most of his uncle’s top moments.
After landing Sunday morning, the group drove the 80 miles to see Nyquist standing at Darley in Lexington.
The hopes are that Chuck can do what Nyquist did: win the Kentucky Derby.
Bryce Miller of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.
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